Before I get to the meat of my argument, I want to take you back to when influencer marketing first came to be. Contrary to popular belief, it did not coincide with the rise in social media and it had nothing to do with the dawn of the iPhone. In fact, it developed long before we knew what a touch screen was — heck, the internet wasn’t even a thing.
The earliest documented influencer marketer was Angelo Mariani, back in 1863. Mariani was a French chemist from the island of Corsica who became intrigued with coca and its economic potential after reading an Italian neurologist’s paper on coca’s effects. He then developed Vin Mariani — a coca wine made from Bordeaux wine and coca leaves.
Mariani solicited testimonials from a broad range of European celebrities, including members of various royal families, politicians, artists, writers and other household names, and reprinted them in newspapers and magazines as advertisements. He claimed to have collected over four thousand such endorsements, including this one from Pope Leo.
Over time, we saw influential personalities such as Nancy Green endorse a popular maple syrup brand, Aunt Jemima, back in 1890. Even Santa was recruited to promote Coca-Cola, and of course, Andy Armstrong as the Marlboro Man — both dating back decades. These people certainly aren’t what we picture when we think of an influencer today, but they were a part of this industry long before the likes of Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian.
In the early 2010s, we began to see the new wave of influencer marketing. With 100 million users in 2013, Instagram started to solidify itself as a place for popular internet personalities with thousands of followers to endorse brands they liked. Six years later, where are we?
Everyone and their dog (literally) is an influencer today. The term “influencer” is thrown around like confetti at a birthday party. As social media has evolved, users now believe that becoming an influencer is a matter of having thousands of followers. You’ll struggle to scroll through your timeline and not see a product promoted by a brand ambassador or influencer. There are countless robot comments on your posts saying “Great post!”, “Love this!!!”, “So cute, follow back?” Millions are trying to become an influencer on Instagram.
The industry is growing so rapidly that sponsorship dollars are flooding in from all angles. With that, there are aspiring influencers, bloggers, and content creators flocking to get in on the action. Free products, easy money, and social clout? That sure does sound enticing, I don’t blame them.
There is a divine separation between most of today’s influencers and what a true thought leader actually is. Think about it, suppose you’re an influencer, would you walk into an interview and upon being asked what your current profession is, claim to be an influencer? How ridiculous is that? Do you take pride in influencing the decisions of other people? If you said yes to that question, do you understand how much of an undertaking that is? Persuading thousands of people to listen to your advice and recommendations is not something to be taken lightly. Yet, a marketer doesn’t have to do much convincing to get someone to promote their brand on Instagram — twenty bucks and a free outfit will do 99% of the time.
Warren Buffett is a renowned stock investor and an influencer in his industry — do you think he’d be quick to give his supporters a recommendation for something he didn’t actually believe in? No, of course not. Buffett is a thought leader and he understands the outcomes and consequences of what he puts out into the universe.
Suppose there’s a 20-something female fitness model with 150,000 Instagram followers, where in most of her photos, she’s posing in her workout attire in front of a mirror. Once in a while, she’ll share a workout tip or two, but offers little in the way of fitness or nutritional advice. Is she an influencer? I’d argue not. Who and what is she influencing? What value does she provide to her audience? Why do people follow her?
In contrast, there’s a personal trainer with 80,000 followers who graduated from UCLA with a degree in kinesiology and has a certification in nutrition. Her social feed is composed of helpful fitness videos and dieting tips, and she takes the time to respond to her follower’s questions on her Instagram Story. She encourages training for general health and longevity, rather than aesthetics. The brands she promotes are carefully researched and FDA approved. Is she an influencer? I certainly think she is. She influences her follower’s decisions by providing researched backed advice and has a university degree to boot. People come to her for advice on losing weight, and she influences them by providing advice on how they can achieve their goals. When she recommends a brand to her followers, they listen.